Teach Your Dog to Relax Around Bees

Buzz off! How to train your bee-chasing, bee-eating, or bee-phobic dog to coexist calmly with stinging insects.

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You would think that a bee sting or two would be aversive enough to convince a dog to give flying, stinging creatures a wide berth. Would that it were so.

But just like a good skunking doesn’t stop most dogs from going after those black-and-white critters again the next time (darn it!), there are many dogs who seem goaded into more intense bee-chasing behavior after an unfortunate encounter of the stinging kind. Conversely, there are also dogs who become literally phobic about all small, flying creatures after a stinging incident. Then there are those who develop an obsessive-compulsive behavior known as fly-snapping when there are no flying insects present at all. (See “Fly-Snapping: Not Really About Flies,” below.)

dog hunts for bees

For a class of insects vital to our survival through their pollination efforts, bees (and their nastier cousins, wasps) can sure wreak havoc with our dogs’ behavior.

It’s understandable how hovering insects can be annoying – or intriguing – to a dog. We humans don’t like small flying creatures in our faces either, but we learn fairly early in life that some are more wisely respected than harassed. I may swat a fly, but I earned the nickname “bee whisperer” at a recent trainer academy when I gently escorted several wasps out of the training center with a plastic cup and a piece of cardboard.

In contrast, dogs are more likely to snap at the buzzing annoyances and end up with a painful (and possibly deadly) sting to the face. So, what do you do about a dog who has risky or inappropriate bee- or wasp-related behavior? Why, beehavior modification, of course!

Bee chasers are at greatest risk for injury as they run after and snap at the little buzzers. But bee-phobic dogs also may have significant quality-of life issues, as bees can cause them to shut down, tremble uncontrollably, and even run away in panic – and their fear behavior is sometimes generalized to other flying insects as well.

Situational Management for Dogs with Bee Issues

To change those behaviors, as with most behavior modification programs, we start with management. There are a variety of ways to deter and discourage bees from congregating in and around your home.

A Google search will give you a number of options for non-toxic bee and wasp repellents. I particularly like this recipe:

Fill an empty spray bottle with water, nearly to the top. Add a few teaspoons of liquid dish soap; this will help the next ingredients will dissolve and evenly distribute in the mixture. Add a few drops of peppermint essential oil – enough so that you can readily smell it when you spray the mixture. Then add ⅛ teaspoon each of cinnamon and cayenne pepper and shake well.

Once you’ve mixed the repellent, spray away, in any place where you want to repel flying insects. Indoors, mist lightly on windowsills and door frames to discourage winged intruders. Outdoors, you can spray on the underside of patio tables, chairs, and shade umbrellas (to prevent patio users from touching the slightly sticky spray).

Additionally, there are a number of plants you can grow that help to repel bees and wasps, including cucumber, basil, geraniums, marigolds, citronella, and mint.

Conversely, there are plants that attract bees. Make sure not to plant these, or else plant them far enough away from your home that they are inviting the bees away from the areas where your dog spends time. Some of the plants that are particularly attractive to bees include bee balm, blackeyed susan, goldenrod, butterly bush, purple coneflower, lavender, roses, sunflowers, and salvia.

I discovered the value of using an attractant to lure wasps away from my dog-training area after I was stung on my ring finger by a yellowjacket when I was teaching outdoor classes in Santa Cruz, California. (Quick, get the ring off before the finger swells!) We used a lot of meaty treats in the class, and yellowjackets are carnivorous – they love meat. I learned to open a can of smelly cat food before each class and place it on a picnic table some distance from the training yard. Problem solved.

You might also consult a professional about other ways to remove bees and wasps (and their nests) from the area around your home. Just remember, for your own dog’s safety and the health of our planet, make sure your professionals use non-toxic methods for bee and wasp removal and deterrence.

Fly-Snapping: Not Really About Flies

Fly-snapping is one of several obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs) that occasionally occur in dogs. This behavior is not about snapping at real flies (or bees, or wasps). Rather, the dog appears to be snapping at imaginary flies, or hallucinations. There are several possible explanations for the behavior:

  • There is a strong genetic component. Certain breeds of dogs, including the Bull Terrier, the Bernese Mountain Dog, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, are afflicted with fly-snapping at a much higher rate than many other breeds.
  • It may be a digestive issue. There does appear to be a correlation between fly-snapping and significant digestive disorder, especially when the snapping is directed downward to toward the dog’s sides rather than up in the air. A 2012 study (“Prospective Medical Evaluation of Seven Dogs Presented with Fly Biting“) found gastrointestinal issues in all of the seven dogs examined for the study.
  • It may be neurological or seizure-related. One theory holds that fly-snapping results from focal seizures – where only a specific part of the brain is affected, hence the absence of what we normally identify as “seizure” activity.

Some cases of fly-snapping can be successfully resolved with early behavioral intervention. Since OCDs are often triggered by stress, stress reduction and removal can be effective.

The first fly-snapping case I saw was a young Bernese Mountain Dog who had just begun the behavior. Stress reduction, increase in enrichment, and removal of any attention for the snapping behavior successfully eliminated the snapping. The three-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel I met who had been snapping since the age of six months was not so fortunate – she ended up having to be medicated for the rest of her life.

If you think your dog is fly-snapping – get some professional help!

Behavior Modification for Bee-Obsessed Dogs

So, what is it that’s reinforcing the bee-chaser’s behavior? If you have a dog who is captivated by movement (think herding dogs, hunting dogs, and terriers), it may simply be that the behavior is driven by the genetic propensity to be reinforced by the opportunity to run after (and perhaps capture) things that move – sheep, cows, squirrels, rabbits, and yes, bees. These are the dogs who seem to think bee-chasing is a fun game. Alternatively, it could a strong emotional response because bees cause pain. These are the dogs who have probably been stung in the past, and seem angry or unhappy when they snap at and chase after the annoying, stinging creatures. In both cases, your goal is to change your dog’s behavior in the presence of the flying bugs.

Of course, the bee-fearful dog’s behavior also needs to be modified. Fear is a more normal and far safer behavior in the presence of bees – but what I’m talking about here are the dogs who are so fearful they cannot function.

While I normally begin with counter-conditioning (changing the association with the stimulus – in this case, the bee) for fear-related behaviors, for severe fear of bees, I suggest an “operant” approach, due to the difficulty in controlling the intensity of stimulus (the number, proximity, and predictability of the bees).

Note: If your dog has very strong fear-reactions to bees and wasps and/or behavior modification doesn’t help, we urge you to consult a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about behavior or a veterinary behaviorist. You can also ask your veterinarian to do a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist to determine if medication is appropriate, and if so, what kind. Your dog needs help!

dog chases flies

Start by teaching your dog an incompatible behavior – something the dog can’t do at the same time as chasing bees. It also should be something that your dog comes to love so much that when a bee appears you can cue your dog to perform (and get reinforced for!) and she will be consistently thrilled to do the behavior. This could be chasing a ball, finding treats dropped at your feet, targeting to your hand, lying down on a mat, or doing a trick. You can select one specific behavior and teach her to automatically offer that behavior when a bee appears, or you can choose to cue any one of several behaviors that she dearly loves.

This is likely to be easier with dogs who are happy chasers than with the ones who are angry chasers or fearful bee-avoiders, as anger and fear are stronger emotions to overcome. But with good training it can be accomplished with all of them.

How to Distract Your Dog from Bees

1. Select one behavior to start with (you can add more later if you want). If your dog already has a behavior she loves, use that. Just be sure it’s one that elicits a happy dance when you cue her to do it. Or pick a new behavior that you think will succeed in making her eyes light up.

2. Begin training the behavior in the total absence of all bees. Make it a fun game, with lots of play reinforcement as well as treats.

3. When she is delighted about having you ask her to do the behavior, generalize it to a variety of environments with a wide variety of distractions (but no bees yet!), until she is just as focused and engaged anywhere.

4. Now comes the hard part. Because we can’t control the bees, and realistic-looking remote-controlled bees are not readily available, we can’t control the intensity of stimulus as well as we would like. Ideally, you would find a location where a very occasional bee will buzz past at a distance close enough to be noticed, but not in your dog’s face.

Be careful! If the bee comes too close while you’re asking her to do her incompatible behavior, you could give her a negative association with the behavior and undo all your hard work!

As soon as she notices the bee, ask your dog for her “bee happy” behavior. Repeat until the bee is gone. Or, if it looks as though the bee is going to buzz around for a while, or if your dog looks at all worried or aroused, move away from the area as you ask for the incompatible, happy behavior.

5. Continue to practice this in a low bee-intensity area, until your dog automatically looks to you or offers her happy bee-behavior when she sees a bee. While you have operantly taught her a happy bee-behavior, you also have changed her classical association with the presence of a bee: “Bees make the opportunity for my fun behavior happen!”

6. Now move closer to where more bees congregate. If your dog can perform and still have fun in this area, you’re good. If not, you need a location with fewer bees, and/or need to be farther away. Be careful!

7. Next try it in a higher-density bee environment. Again, if your dog can still perform and be happy, you’re good. If not, you need fewer bees and/or need to be farther away.

8. When your dog’s happy response is well established in the presence of bees in reasonably close proximity, very gradually reduce your cueing of the behavior. First, wait a few seconds before you cue it, then wait longer, and occasionally don’t ask for it at all. You will still (and forever) continue to cue the behavior sometimes when the two of you are in the presence of bees. But your goal is to have your dog so well programmed that she won’t revert to bee chasing even if you’re not there to ask for her happy bee behavior.

“Bee” Smart

Remember that your dog’s undesirable behavior around bees can easily resurface if you forget to keep practicing her be-happy behavior(s) in the presence of flying, stinging buzzers. Continue to use good bee-management practices so our honey-producing, plant-pollinating friends (and their not-so-helpful cousins, the wasps) keep their distance from your canine pal.

Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor and owner of the Peaceable Paws training center in Fairplay, MD.

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